Whataboutism: When calling out hypocrisy is just a diversion.

By Håkon Syrrist and Michael Gordon
05/02/2023 • 05:52 AM EST

Clinton counters a Sanders' political ad with whataboutism.

In an interview just before the 2016 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton addressed insinuations from her opponent, Bernie Sanders, that she took too much money from Wall Street to hold Wall Street accountable. When asked to respond, Clinton said, "I mean, basically, it's also a very direct criticism of President Obama, who, as you recall, took a lot of money from the financial industry when he ran in 2008. That didn't stop him from fighting for the hardest regulations on Wall Street..." 

A few weeks later, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Clinton hit back again at Sanders, this time more directly, stating, "Senator Sanders took about $200,000 from Wall Street firms, not directly but through the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. You know, there is nothing wrong with that".[1]

Clinton's rhetorical counter in both scenarios is a form of ad hominemsee definition - attacking the character or motive of the person making an argument, rather than attacking the argument itself.
commonly known as whataboutism. The technique is a logical fallacy which deflects criticism by suggesting any notion of hypocrisy renders the criticism null and void. It's worth noting that Clinton never directly disputes taking money from Wall Street but instead diverts the focus of the conversation to seemingly similar offenses committed by others. As Clinton demonstrates, the charge of hypocrisy doesn't have to be directed back at the critic but can be assigned to anyone that also might be guilty of a similar offense.

Whataboutism often incorporates other logical fallacies, like false equivalencysee definition - implying that two things are essentially the same, when they only have anecdotal similarities.
. In the previously stated instances, Clinton tries to equivocate her and her husband's combined personal earnings of 7.7 million dollars from doing paid speeches for big banks with Obama and Sanders' campaign contributions.[2] In Sanders' case, the false equivalency is even more disingenuous since only 8% of the "$200,000" Clinton mentioned came from Wall Street money.[3]

Whataboutism also relies on the logical fallacy of false dichotomysee definition - giving the impression that there are only two opposing choices or options, while ignoring any middle ground exists between the two extremes.
, in that it hinges on the misconception that we can't be concerned with the original issue and the one whatabouted into the conversation. Even if the whataboutism introduces a valid equivalency, acknowledging a new offense or offender doesn't nullify the original.

Even so, that is not to say that calling out hypocrisy is always whataboutism. Disregarding an argument solely based on it being labeled a "whataboutism" runs the risk of making the term a thought-terminating cliché.[4] If the whataboutism introduces a valid and not a false equivalency, one must then ask how relevant the equivalence is. Is the whatabouted offense instrumental to the original offense, or is there no causal relationship between the two?

For instance, during the Cuban Missile crisis when the USSR started placing nuclear missiles within striking distance of the U.S., when challenged by JFK, the Soviets justified their actions pointing to installations of U.S. nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe within striking distance of the USSR.[5] In this case, the equivalence is both valid and relevant. In Clinton's case, even if the actions of Obama and Sanders were valid and not false equivalencies, it does not provide justification for her actions.

That is a key logical flaw in whataboutism - it always fails to make the original accusation any less true. It serves instead as a diversion that directs the debate away from the issue at hand into a battle over which offender is worse. It thrives on an unsaid assumption that one party can’t be wrong if the other isn’t right. And in doing so, it makes both parties involved more focused on pointing out the hypocrisy of the other side than engaging in the original argument, which is precisely the point.

2. "$153 million in Bill and Hillary Clinton speaking fees, documented". CNN Politics. Published: February 06, 2016.

3. "Clinton’s Exaggerated Wall Street Claim". FactCheck.org. Published: February 11, 2016.

4. "The Rhetoric of “Whataboutism” in American Journalismand Political Identity". Rhetoric of American Identities. Published: July 02, 2020.

5. "Cuban Missile Crisis". History.com. Published: April 20, 2023.

6. "The History of Russian Involvement in America's Race Wars". The Atlantic. Published: October 21, 2017.